The last offensive play of the season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2017 was a 39-yard touchdown catch by Chris Godwin, which produced a last-second win over the New Orleans Saints. The 2018 Buccaneers don't necessarily need to end their season as dramatically as that, but they definitely would like to see some similarly explosive plays in the passing attack during the final two weekends.
The Buccaneers had the NFL's top-ranked offense as recently as three weeks ago (they are at third heading into Week 16) and they've held on to the top spot in the passing offense rankings since Week Two. Tampa Bay's prolific passing game has been built on explosive plays delivered by six talented pass-catchers: Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries, O.J. Howard and Cam Brate.
While Tampa Bay's defense was constantly shuffling its lineup – and getting often subpar results – due to injuries, the Bucs' offense stayed mostly healthy well into November. All six of those players listed above appeared in each of the team's first 10 games, and at that point the Buccaneers were tied for first in the NFL in what its own coaching staff defines as "explosive" passing plays; that is, receptions of 16 or more yards. Tampa Bay and the Los Angeles Rams had 89 each and that was roughly 44 more explosive plays than the average NFL team at that point.
Howard, the Bucs' seam-stretching second-year tight end, was lost to an ankle injury in that 10th game, however. Tampa Bay won its next contest, 27-9 over San Francisco, but had only three explosive passing plays, roughly six below its per-game average coming in. The Rams had a bye that week so the Buccaneers moved into first place in the league in that category, now about 42.5 more explosive plays than the NFL average.
Jackson, the NFL's leader in yards per reception in 2018, sustained a thumb injury in that same game in which Howard was hurt, then aggravated it in the win over the 49ers and had to sit out the next three games. In its three contests without either Howard or Jackson, the Buccaneers' passing attack has produced a total of 12 explosive plays; 15 teams have had more in that same span. The Bucs do still rank first in the NFL in that category, by two over the Rams and three over the Chiefs, but are now only 31.5 plays above the league average.
Howard is on injured reserve and won't return to game action until 2019, though his injury was not severe enough to require surgery. Jackson, on the other hand, will likely be back in the mix this Sunday in Dallas when the Buccaneers take on the Cowboys. Jackson practiced fully on Thursday and Friday, and even though he's technically listed as "questionable" on the injury report – fairly standard procedure for a player returning from an injury that kept him out of the previous game – he will be active for the game, according to Head Coach Dirk Koetter.
That will give Koetter and Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken some more options and could help restore some of the explosiveness that characterized the Bucs' aerial attack for three months.
"O.J. and DeSean being out, two explosive players that are matchup guys that can separate, having those two guys early in the year allowed us to be a little more explosive," said Monken. "Having DeSean back will be great for this week."
The Buccaneers' passing attack still had big-play makers like Evans and Godwin in the last three weeks, and indeed Evans caught a 65-yard pass in last Sunday's loss to the Saints. The dip in big plays hasn't exclusively been about the absence of Howard and Jackson, as the offense has also stalled at times due to penalties and other mistakes, such as the uncharacteristic drop by Godwin in Baltimore on a pass that probably would have been a 50-yard touchdown had he held on. Game circumstances have contributed as well; Tampa Bay's defense had trouble getting off the field on third down against the Ravens, which led to the offense only getting 47 snaps in the entire game.
"Some of what we've done from an execution standpoint…[Jackson's return] will help us from an explosive standpoint but the bottom line is, especially the last couple weeks, the opportunities we've had," said Monken. "Last week we had 47 snaps, we had three opportunities past midfield and we didn't score. It's a matter of when you get the opportunities, scoring touchdowns."
Indeed, while the Buccaneers' average yardage on its explosive passing plays hasn't dipped in the last three weeks – it was 25.69 through the first 10 games and 26.42 over the past four – the quick-strike scores have disappeared. Tampa Bay had 12 touchdowns on explosive passing plays through the first 10 games; it has had none since.
Still, Jackson's return should help, even if he does not personally record any long receptions. Opposing defenses can't ignore the threat of him going deep and that could possibly draw coverage away from Evans and others. That said, the Cowboys play a lot of aggressive man-to-man coverage and they have played it very well. The Dallas defense has allowed 60 completions of 16 or more yards this season, the fifth-lowest total in the NFL.
“[They're] not complicated, but they do play awfully hard," said Monken. "[They've] got a number of really good football players. Definitely our play clock in our head is going to have to be extended because they do play hard. They will finish. They will get after the quarterback in terms of their pass rush. That’s what they’re building on paying at home with the noise on the turf. We’ve got to do a great job of running the football, being able to get chip help when we can, and our guys have got to win outside. That’s what you have to do, but they’re not complicated. They just do what they do and do it well, which is a sign of a good team. Statistically they’re every bit as good as the Ravens in a lot of categories and you can see it on film."
The Buccaneers' offense talent is well-documented by game footage as well. It has been a bit less productive in recent weeks, in part due to facing such strong defenses as those in Baltimore and New Orleans. Mostly, though, it has been less explosive, particularly when measured against the very high standard it set in that category for much of the season. The return of DeSean Jackson could be an important factor in getting back to that level of production for the final two weeks of the season.